Local Transport Today is the authoritative, independent journal for transport decision makers. Analysis, Comment & News on Transport Policy, Planning, Finance and Delivery since 1989.

Change in the air?

03 April 2020

Streets are quiet and the thoughts of both citizens and their political leaders are focused on a single issue that is transcending party boundaries. But as well as the suspension of normal politics, perhaps we are at a point where there is a suspension of normal policies too – and not just those affecting the fight against the Covid-19. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the Government last week pressed on with its work on shaping a strategy to decarbonise the UK’s transport system by publishing its Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge document. It was not the top of the news agenda, but it was noticed – and particularly for the fact that transport secretary Grant Shapps seemed ready to go rather further than might have been expected from a Conservative Government traditionally very sensitive to not treading on the toes of the public’s freedom to travel as they wish, and in particular, protecting the interests of motorists. 

The first step towards a Transport Decarbonisation Plan to be published later in the year, the document recognises that current policies will not be nearly enough to bring transport in line with net zero greenhouse gas emissions, and begins to lay the groundwork for a wide range of stronger measures.

This is just a first step of course. And it will be some time before the vision outlined becomes a committed plan. But as visions go, it was “rather impressive” in the words of the Campaign for Better Transport, not always the Government’s greatest fans. 

Particularly significant seems to be an acknowledgment that already announced steps towards greater electric mobility and ending sales of petrol and diesel vehicles do not go far enough. The new document sets out the need for a major modal shift, with fewer journeys being made by car and more being made by public transport, on foot and by bike. 

Shapps himself says that, with transport having a huge role to play in the economy reaching net zero, “the scale of the challenge demands a step change in both the breadth and scale of ambition and we have a duty to act quickly and decisively to reduce emissions”.

The document was of course prepared before Covid-19. The big question is, what will the country’s appetite for this agenda be in a potentially shattered post-virus economy?  

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